The Psalms on Thanksgiving

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Last week we looked at the emphasis on worship in the Psalms. This week and next, we will look at the kind of worship. Last week we read

“I wash my hands in innocence

And go around your altar, Lord.”

But Psalm 26 then says,

“That I might openly proclaim praise

And recount all your wondrous deeds.”

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The first thing we learn here about praise is that it is connected with words: with proclamation, and recounting. Yes, worship involves the washing of hands (both morally and ritually) and processions around the altar. But it rises into proclamation – which is why the Psalms themselves are at the heart of Jewish and Christian worship, and why the heart of the Mass, the indispensable part, is words.

We proclaim what God has done, and that remembering is itself at the height of worship. It is through words that we announce causal connections (that God has done this, it hasn’t just happened), and that we outline what it is that is so great. Just as it is with words that we know “This is his body” and the Centurion proclaimed, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

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We might be stretching the verses in front of us a little, but we won’t be stretching the Psalms, if we point out that there are two things we praise God for: nature, and what God has done in nature. We could also say nature and grace, or Creation and Redemption, or the World and History. First God made the world. Then he entered into it. For both of these things we praise him.

The Liturgy of the Mass takes up the heart of this dynamic with the Sanctus (and its second half, sometimes called the Benedictus). “Heaven and earth are full of your glory”: first we say that the world itself, because God has made it, proclaims his praise. “Blessed is he who comes”: then we see praise him for entering that world, in the fullness of time.

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The Psalms were written before Jesus entered into time, but they too proclaim both God’s work in creating the world and his work in time. “Blessed is he who comes” itself comes from Psalm 118.

Frequently, for example, the Psalms speak of God’s work in nature, and then his speaking of his Law to Israel:

“He gives snow like wool: he scatters the frost like ashes.

He casts forth his ice like morsels: who can stand before his cold?

He sends out his word, and melts them: he causes his wind to blow, and the waters flow.”

— Thus far, he is Lord of nature. But then he speaks: —

“He shows his word to Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel.

He has not dealt thus with any other nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them.

Praise the LORD.”

In fact, God’s action in history is all the more impressive because he is the Lord of nature. To hear an angel’s opinion would be impressive. But to be taught by the God who made everything is far greater. He both knows everything there is to know, and can give everything there is to give.

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Similarly, he is the God of Providence: the one who made the heavens, and the waters, and the sun and moon – and who also brought Israel out from Egypt. (See e.g. Psalm 136.)

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In all of this, praise is mingled with thanks. We are amazed at what he has done – but we are also grateful. We are more grateful because what he has done is amazing; and we are more amazed that the amazing things he does are for our favor.

We say that the Mass is thanksgiving (eucharistia) and also worship. Indeed, in the Preface we go from, “It is right and just, our duty and our salvation, to give you thanks,” to “therefore, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the heavenly hosts, we sing a hymn to your glory.” Giving thanks leads us to say, “Holy, holy, holy.”

The Psalms just let us practice this dynamic, constantly recalling his works in nature and history, in order to rise up to him in praise and thanksgiving.

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This is a habit, of course, that we should practice in our own life: giving thanks for what we see, both of nature and of grace. But how great that we should be led as if by hand on a tour of God’s works, trained by the divine tutor in the practice of thanksgiving and praise.

How could we better practice gratitude for God’s works in the Bible?

eric.m.johnston

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